Status of Federal EMP Legislation

With Republicans taking control of the Senate, it might appear that chances of passage of the Shield Act are improved. Actually, though, some of the most intractable foes of EMP legislation have been Republicans Fred Upton and Lisa Murkowski. This is not a party issue, but a matter of entrenched interests in the power industry.

One promising likely development is official recognition of the EMP hazard by the Department of Homeland Security:

In order to mitigate the EMP threat, Rep. Franks (R-Ariz.), chair of the Congressional EMP Caucus, is pushing legislation that would secure critical infrastructure against an EMP attack. The Critical Infrastructure Protection Act (CIPA) would enable the Department of Homeland Security to implement practical steps to protect the electrical grid.

CIPA “enhances the Department of Homeland Security’s threat assessments for geomagnetic disturbances and electromagnetic pulse blackouts which will enable practical steps to protect the electric grid that serves our Nation,” Franks explained.

With 99 percent of critical infrastructure controlled by civilians, Franks believes the federal government must compel the private sector to harden systems against EMP attack. Through CIPA, he hopes to raise awareness of the threat of EMP, which will be crucial in mitigating future attacks on critical infrastructure.

“All of the civilian critical infrastructures that sustain the economy of the United States, and the lives of 310 million Americans, depend, directly or indirectly, upon electricity and electronic systems,” Pry said.

Passage of the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act is the single most important thing Congress could do to protect the nation from the EMP threat, Pry said. Raising awareness of the EMP threat and how to prepare for it would help emergency planners and local responders in launching initiatives to protect the electric grid and implement the recommendations of the EMP Commission.

“Passage of the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act would immediately mobilize thousands of emergency planners and first responders at all levels of government, and educate millions of others about the EMP threat and how to prepare for it,” Pry said.

Although the CIPA does not provide funding to harden the grid, it is likely to be quickly passed by Congress and signed by the President. This would be a step forward.

Even if the core transformers of the national electrical grid were hardened, it is not clear to me that this would by itself prevent catastrophe. There are thousands of smaller transformers that could still be damaged. In a nuclear EMP, computerized control circuitry critical to food and fuel production could be burned out. Computers necessary to the running of banks could be ruined, with no way to access account information. Preventing such widespread, simultaneous damage is a daunting challenge.

Agricultural Strategies

Following an EMP attack, what is the best strategy for producing food? Is it best to grow field crops such as wheat? Or to tend gardens with beans and squash? Or to raise livestock?

After the initial die back, there will be plenty of fallow land, and livestock could graze it with little technology or human labor needed. The difficulty is that starting with just a few animals it takes years to build up a herd of cattle, goats, sheep, or pigs to the point where animal protein could provide a significant addition to the diet of a community. Chickens, however, breed quickly, and after a year could provide enough eggs to be an important source of protein. To avoid drawing attention to your operations, you might have to keep your roosters inside a building.

With a lack of power to pump water, the ability to grow non-irrigated crops such as wheat becomes more important. This requires tractors and hence diesel fuel and perhaps repair electronics for the tractors. As mentioned before, diesel fuel should be obtainable from service stations, given the ability to pump it out. Solar electric systems or small generators could power machine shops which could make parts to repair farm equipment.

Where water is available, gardens could be established. This is a high-labor alternative, but labor is likely to be available. For both field crops and gardens, it would be important to stockpile seeds. Some of those seeds should be legumes, both for edible crops and for cover crops to provide nitrogen.

So a number of agricultural strategies seem viable in the aftermath of an EMP disaster, but in each case advance planning and stockpiling is critical.

Oceans of Gasoline and Diesel Fuel

A typical service station can store 20,000 gallons of liquid transportation fuel. This fuel source would become critically important during an extended emergency (an extended emergency is one which is both widespread and prolonged).

During an extended emergency, failure of the electrical grid would make it hard to pump out this fuel. Civil disorder would make it dangerous to travel and use fuel in any case. Lack of food would quickly reduce the population. For these three reasons, this resource is likely to remain relatively untapped and intact during the emergency. This means it will be available for farming, transportation, and small-scale power generation to those who survive the initial dieback.

One challenge often mentioned with regard to liquid fuels is degradation over time. Gasoline these days contains alcohol, which absorbs water from the air. Air in tanks also allows slow oxidation of the fuel. The products of oxidation and biological activity (due to water) can plug up engines. Yet these problems are not intractable. These fuels have survived as part of petroleum for millions of years, simply by being kept sealed away from air. Diesel fuel and gasoline sealed in drums should last a long time. Oxidation products can largely be filtered out, or even removed by distillation if necessary.

What is needed to tap this resource is a simple automotive fuel pump connected to a hose which can be dropped down into service station tanks. It can be powered by a car battery or small generator, or simply the power system of the vehicle that will be transporting the fuel. A fuel filter can be included to ensure the fuel drawn out is clean.

The best plan would be to store your own fuel to meet your needs during the first few months of an extended emergency, and tap service station tanks later on when it is safer to go out. You are unlikely to need much fuel during this initial period, since running generators, cars, and farm equipment might draw unwelcome attention.

Helping Others

Imagine that you are a philanthropist who wants to blunt the effects of an EMP catastrophe. You can’t save everyone, but you want to do more than just save your own family. What should you do?

The most important thing you should do is save the farmers. Without them, everyone will starve. To save the farmers, you also need to save people who support farmers, such as rural policemen, farm equipment repair specialists, and small power system specialists.

Beyond the question of whom you should save from a practical standpoint, there is the moral perspective. Who deserves to survive? I believe one answer to this is, you should help those who help themselves, who recognize the danger and take steps to prepare. A family can stock food for a possible disaster, but it is hard for a single family to defend itself from looters. So help such families band together to defend themselves.

International Relations

If Europe or Asia were hit with an EMP attack, within weeks Americans would mount a massive rescue effort. So if America were nuked (and Europeans and Asians weren’t), would they soon arrive with food?

The US is the world’s leading agricultural exporter, in particular of the critical commodities wheat, corn, and soybeans. A disaster hitting any of the major food-exporting nations – US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand – would trigger such high prices for food that people in many countries would starve. So however much Europeans and Asians might want to help, they are unlikely to have significant food surpluses they could send – certainly not enough to feed 300 million people.

In the event of an attack on the US, America’s foreign military personnel would likely redeploy to the continental US. This could be helpful; they could work to impose order in farm country and around fuel and power infrastructure, and help to funnel whatever international aid becomes available to these areas. Yet in many parts of the world, it is US forces that maintain the peace, so without these forces in place, war is likely to break out overseas. This too will impede foreign food production, trade, and the willingness of our friends overseas to help us.

If anything saves the US from a nuclear HEMP, it will be the realization by our enemies that if they attack us, they will starve. Of course, that won’t protect us from a powerful geomagnetic storm.

Operational Security

Ensuring operational security (OPSEC – preparing for an emergency secretly so no one will later seize your supplies) is usually at odds with other objectives in emergency preparedness. So you don’t want to do more of it than necessary – and it isn’t always necessary. For example, in an EMP crisis, all threats become local, so it doesn’t matter that an online food supplier knows you stockpiled lots of food. On the other hand, it matters a great deal whether the local police chief knows you stockpiled food.

The government is monitoring the lives of the citizenry ever more closely, and the best hope for quietly preparing for an emergency is that officials will continue to discount the possibility of a really serious crisis. If instead officials saw a crisis coming, they might require everyone to disclose how much food they have stored. For example, if a terrorist nation releases a nuclear EMP over Europe, then local US officials might require everyone to disclose any stockpiles beyond what officials consider adequate. Once an EMP crisis has already occurred in an area, communications breakdowns make it too late for such threats to be effective there.

From the outside, a house with a basement full of emergency supplies doesn’t look any different from a house without such supplies. What is hard to hide is preparations for defending those supplies. Modern houses are not designed for defense, and would be shredded in a firefight. A defensive perimeter has to be established outside the house, and to meet the demands of operational security, it cannot look like a medieval city wall. It has to look like the raised planting bed for a garden, perhaps only a few feet high – high enough to shelter prone defenders with rifles. Ideally it would be faced with masonry, or steep enough that a vehicle couldn’t plow its way over it. The shrubbery on the raised bed would not stop a bullet from hitting the house, but if dense enough, would make it hard for an attacker to see the house and target anyone. Breaks in the planting bed (for a driveway, or to the sidewalk) could be plugged with vehicles once a crisis has begun.

If you have enough land, and some part of it is obscured by trees, you can build a special-purpose retreat in the middle of the forest. Even then, it is important to make it look unlike a medieval castle. If no one else, at least the Planning Department personnel who approve the building permit and the construction workers who build it will tell all their friends about the fascinating project they are working on.

If you are a farmer, your cover is already blown. Everybody expects you to have food, and in a crisis will be headed your way. Your best hope is to make a deal with someone such as the local National Guard unit. They will take what they want, but are likely to spare you because they need you to grow food for them. If you have a smaller farm (or simply don’t want to depend on the National Guard), you may need to stockpile supplies and “harden” your farm in order to convince others to help defend you.

Symmetric Warfare

A nuclear EMP would cause prolonged grid failure. This in turn would cause famine and widespread violence. Wandering gangs of thugs would methodically plunder homes. They would have the advantage of superior numbers, of experience, and of surprise. Normally  the police deal with such gangs, but police are likely to stay home with their hungry and defenseless families, and are too few in any case.

Neighbors could join together to defend themselves, but unless they planned ahead, they would have less food and fewer weapons than the gang members. At best, they might achieve parity, a kind of “symmetric warfare” in which for every bad guy killed, one good guy dies. These are not very attractive odds if there are lots of bad guys.

The best solution I’ve come up with is for people to camp out on farms and defend them, using defensive walls and open fields of fire to improve the odds. Besides, if farms are ruined, everyone will starve eventually, no matter how much food they have stored.

Afterthought – Symmetric warfare is scary to bad guys too. They would rather have the advantage, and if a neighborhood puts up a brave defense, they may well retreat and  move on to easier prey.

How Much Food To Store?

Your location and the time of year of an EMP event both make a big difference in how much food you need to store. Most people who have thought about this conclude that Spring is the worst time for an Event, since loss of power would interfere with the planting. If you live in the corn belt, then the best time for an Event is right after the harvest, but before the corn is packed and sent off to processing plants out of state. In theory, you wouldn’t have to store much food if you live near a grain silo, especially if the silo has just been filled.

If you live in a big city, no amount of food storage is going to ensure your longterm survival, because eventually it will run out and you’ll have to move to the countryside.

I live in Oregon, where most of the fields are growing grass seed, so for me the least harmful time for the Pulse to occur might be prior to the planting in May. The Pulse would induce farmers to plant more food crops. In my part of Oregon, not much food is stored locally, so storing food to last until the next harvest is important. I figure I should store a year’s worth of food, just in case the Pulse occurs too late in the summer to allow extra food crop plantings. If I store enough food for 8 people for 1 year (8 people-years), and then the Pulse occurs in May (3 months until harvest), then I can instead feed 8 x 12/3 = 32 people with that same amount of food.

No matter where you live, eventually all stored food will run out, and there will be a shift to food planted after the Event. So it may be worth thinking how we can make sure that farms get the seeds, water, and tractor fuel they need to remain productive.